Perez in his prime as Mets roll
Left-hander looks sharp in first start after stint on disabled list
NEW YORK -- If there was any doubt as to how fully Oliver Perez's stiff back had healed, the lefty answered them quickly with six strikeouts, six emphatic leaps over the mound and one well-timed win.
An air of unpredictability around Perez entering Sunday afternoon's series finale against the Reds had come to rest squarely on the lefty's balky back. But six innings into a 5-2 win at Shea, Perez left no doubt that his back had loosened into midseason form.
And that midseason form has already proven to be pretty good.
"He's got the potential to be one of the best lefties in the game," said center fielder Carlos Beltran, "and he proved it today."
The proof came via six innings of two-run ball that kept the Reds from really threatening. By the time they did claw across two stray runs, the Mets had already scored five of their own, a total they hadn't amassed since July 7 at Houston. An inning later, the game was safely in the hands of the bullpen, which wasn't about to let it slip away.
Combining on a increasingly typical three innings of work, Pedro Feliciano, Aaron Heilman and Billy Wagner shut a door that hadn't been opened very wide in the first place. Those three, along with their bullpen mates, have now allowed just one run in their past 29 innings, good for a 0.31 ERA.
And in 29 innings, there's plenty of room for the ugly as well as the pretty.
"They hit three bullets off me," said Wagner, who racked up his 20th save in 21 chances nonetheless. "It's not necessarily [that] I can say I pitched well. They got themselves out."
And the Mets didn't. A run-scoring double by backup catcher Ramon Castro, who's batting .615 over his last four starts, snapped the offense to attention, while two RBIs from Lastings Milledge -- his fourth and fifth in three games -- gave the Perez all the offense he would need. Jose Reyes added some more for good measure, rocking a two-run homer in the fifth inning to seal the game and the series. It's true that this all came against the Reds -- a team whose best hitter, Ken Griffey Jr., had his .283 average firmly planted on the bench for Sunday's finale. Only one other Red -- hot-hitting second baseman Brandon Phillips -- was even above .270 heading into the game, and he, not surprisingly, accounted for half the team's offense.
But in one sense, the Reds' futility is exactly what made them so dangerous.
"The Reds might be in last place, but they're such a dangerous team because they have nothing to lose," Wagner said. "You don't know what they're going to do."
One glimpse of that threat came in the fourth, when Adam Dunn slugged a Perez fastball one-third of the way up the scoreboard in right field, smashing a light and leaving the crowd in disbelief.
And thanks to the win, the Mets could laugh about the impossibly long drive, officially tagged at 460 feet.
"If I'm a pitcher, I want to give up a home run like that," Beltran joked. "Just over the fence, I don't like those. But like that? I can enjoy watching it at least."
He may have enjoyed it just a bit more than Perez.
"That was a fastball," was all the lefty would say, before cracking a smile himself. "Right down the middle."
After the ribbing he took in the dugout for Dunn's shot, it appeared that Perez's sense of humor is just as intact as his back. And that back, which the lefty insisted was at 100 percent, after providing no reasons on the field to think otherwise, is a vital part of the Mets' drive to separate themselves from the rest of the NL East.
The Mets are getting healthier. Perez has returned, and fifth starter Jorge Sosa is set to return on Monday. That brings the Mets' rotation back to full strength, which is precisely where they need it heading into a seven-game western swing against two of the best teams in the league.
"We're really going in a positive direction," Milledge said. "We're getting back to what we did last year, how we ran away with it last year. I feel like we're getting back on that same page."
Milledge should know, after watching all these injuries unfold from afar. He was one of the wounded, his presence in a banged-up Mets outfield blocked by an early-season foot injury. He's seen how a stiff back here and a pulled quad there can change the shape of a pennant race.
And he's also become the poster child for the benefits that newfound health can bring, stringing together not just hits, but important hits, in four straight games since his return.
Now, he's just waiting for the rest of the ailing Mets to catch up.
"Everybody's going to get healthy," Milledge said. "And when everybody gets healthy, watch out."
Anthony Dicomo is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.